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Sanus per Aquam: The History and Health Benefits of Water

‘Health by means of water’ - this is the literal translation of the Latin Sanus per Aquam. Many people attribute the origin of the term ‘spa’ to this phrase. Other sources claim that the term ‘spa’ is not an acronym but see it as a reference to the Belgian city, made famous in the 14th century for its mineral waters with multiple health-giving properties. But whatever origin of the term ‘spa’, everyone agrees on one thing: water has many beneficial properties for the body and mind.

In order to provide bathers with the most enjoyable experience possible, modern-day hot tubs and spas often feature a wealth of highly advanced features. From salt water sanitising systems to high-density insulation, economical circulation pumps, next-generation hydro massage jets, LED lights and in-spa audio-visual entertainment, there are many options.

However, hot tubs and home spas didn’t always have innovative features. In fact, they were rudimentary and rather basic before the advent of technology. For most, the simple sensation of soaking in hot water provided enough pleasure.

Where did hot tubs originate in history?

Archaeological evidence suggests that early Egyptians used hot therapeutic baths some 4,000 years ago. The very first hot tub could well have been made for King Phraortes of ancient Persia in 600BC, which was chiselled out of solid granite.

The great philosophers of Greece including Plato, Homer and Hippocrates were also fans of hot water, as they believed it had therapeutic properties. Elaborate buildings and structures were built around hot springs, where social gatherings and activities took place.

The emergence of spas

The Romans outdid their predecessors by designing and building extravagant large-scale spas. These facilities were often constructed to help weary legionnaires recover from their military wounds and ailments.

Roman baths in Bath Spa city UK - was this where hot tubs originated?

Hot spas were built across the Roman Empire and would often include sports arenas, massage parlours and eating venues. The importance of water and its use was highly symbolic and significant in Roman culture, for general and urban planning in particular. Marshes, aqueducts, fountains, baths and especially hot springs or sulphurous water always held a special attraction for the Romans.

Whole cities were created around these enclaves, the most famous in Europe being Baden Baden in Germany and Bath in England. Both words mean precisely ‘the baths’. Other cities like Aquae Sextiae (Aix-En-Provence in France) and Aquae Spadanae, which corresponds to the present city of Spa in Belgium.

The city of Spa remained famous in the Middle Ages, as a fashionable place to take the waters. And in the seventeenth century along with the British and the wealthy of Europe, the future Tsar Peter the Great visited in 1717, during his stay in the Netherlands to study the levees that contained the sea. The British took the concept of Spa to the US and the rest of the world, where the term ‘spa’ has established itself as a place to take baths or hot springs or medicinal waters.

Further afield in Japan, hot water bathing in freestanding wooden tubs, called ‘ofuro’ has been a family tradition for centuries, while the Japanese phrase, ‘Mizu-no-Kokoro’ translates into ‘Mind Like Water’.

Modern-day home hot tub development

The first modern home hot tub spas were said to originate in California around 1958, often crafted out of old redwood vats and discarded wine barrels. The swinging sixties also encouraged hot tub development but water sanitation and filtration systems weren’t exactly a priority.

Another problem was using wood as a material, as it did little to prevent leaks, contained natural toxins, and was a breeding ground for bacteria, mold, algae and slime. But by the end of the decade, the first fibreglass shell hot tubs came to market, which were soon replaced by cast acrylic in the early seventies.

This made it much easier for owners to maintain water cleanliness, while manufacturers could also start integrating pumps, filters, control systems, and jets into the malleable and versatile plastic. While several technologies were borrowed from the swimming pool industry, the work of an Italian migrant changed the face of hot tub design forever.

Where did the name jacuzzi come from?

A couple of decades previously, Candido Jacuzzi used his aviation engineering background to develop a whirlpool bath for his son Ken, who had rheumatoid arthritis. Years later, third generation family member Roy Jacuzzi invented and marketed the first self-contained, fully integrated whirlpool bath, and the family surname became synonymous with hot tubs.

Early Hydrotherapy - the benefits of a cold water dip

Cold water plunging in freezing Moraine lake in canada - cold water therapy

Sebastian Kneipp, the son of a Bavarian weaver convinced himself of the health-promoting effect of water as an adolescent. Kneipp had been suffering from tuberculosis for over two years when he came across a book on the effects of water in 1849. According to this book, cold-water bathing was seen as healthy and helped with a wide range of ailments.

Sebastian Kneipp began to self-experiment in the cold Danube. The result of the daily river baths: the theology student felt increasingly refreshed; after three years of regular baths and water showers, his tuberculosis reportedly disappeared. And so Kneipp, who ordained as a priest, began to apply his findings on the subject of ‘water health’ to patients.

Word quickly spread among the population that the ‘water doctor’ Sebastian Kneipp used water for all kinds of illnesses and worked wonders with his treatments. In 1886 he made his big breakthrough with the book ‘Meine Wasserkur’ (My Water Cure), and modern ‘hydrotherapy’, according to Kneipp was born.

Take the plunge - The Wim Hof Method

Ice cold plunge pool for Wim Hof cold water therapy

Another modern exponent of cold water therapy is Wim Hof, whose method combines breathing, cold therapy, and commitment to help connect more deeply to the body. It involves powerful inhalation, relaxed exhalation and prolonged breath holds.

Proponents say the technique can lead to increased immunity, better sleep, reduced stress and heightened focus. The Wim Hof Method could have implications for treating inflammatory conditions, especially autoimmune conditions, and there’s a body of research to support this.

Hof’s obsession with freezing temperatures began at the age of 17. ‘I was quite a thinker, a philosopher, but one day I felt attracted to the freezing water,’ he told The Observer. ‘I jumped into a canal in Amsterdam and thought: ‘This is it!’ That deep connection I felt that day was the starting point.’

He returned the next day, and the next, until cold plunges were part of his daily life.

If you’d like to learn more about the benefits of hot and cold bathing, hot tubs, spas and plunge pools, then keep an eye on our blog or contact us to ask questions or discuss your own specific requirements.